The Day the Science Died

This afternoon, a coalition of influenza virologists released a statement saying that they are voluntarily suspending research on H5N1 “bird flu” for 60 days. This was in response to the Category 5 hype storm that has accompanied the publication of two papers about this virus. My previous post on this topic (and links therein) provides a quick review for those who haven’t been following this story.

I’m of two minds about the new moratorium. As a scientist, I think it’s moronic. H5N1 flu is biologically interesting, and could become a major public health concern if it ever manages to sustain human-to-human transmission. Though its lethality has probably been vastly overstated, there’s no doubt that it is capable of killing at least some people, under some circumstances. The demonstration that it’s possible for H5N1 to adapt to a mammalian host, even one that diverged from the primate lineage many millions of years ago, shows that we need to step up H5N1 research, not halt it.

However, the biodefense industry’s recent push to whip up fear has completely distorted the public’s perception of this issue. Millions of nonscientists are now convinced that the recent virus transmission work was dangerous, perhaps even foolhardy, and that terrorist groups could easily take advantage of the new findings to kill millions. None of that is even remotely true. Unfortunately, people who are in a panic aren’t capable of rationally evaluating the nuances, so the scientists who’ve been trying to defend ongoing H5N1 work are at a disadvantage. Saying they’ll suspend that work is the only reasonable public relations strategy at this point.

Around the same time the moratorium was announced, a partially overlapping group of virologists sent an open letter to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), giving that board a thump on the head. It was the NSABB that started this whole circus, by calling for the new H5N1 publications to be partially censored. In the open letter, the virologists argue that this censorship is unjustifiably hindering scientific progress. They were apparently too polite to say that deliberately omitting data from a publication in response to a nebulous, entirely theoretical “security risk” is antithetical to the whole scientific enterprise, so I’ll do it for them.

The moratorium should help bolster public confidence in the scientists’ ability to address this issue themselves, while the letter to the NSABB lays the groundwork for a productive debate based on reason rather than fear. Hopefully, in a couple of months everyone will be able to calm down and get back to work.

8 thoughts on “The Day the Science Died

  1. Pingback: Moratorium on influenza H5N1 transmission research

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  3. Tony Mach

    “terrorist groups could easily take advantage of the new findings to kill millions”

    If the fear-mongering media is convinced that ruthless terrorists could replicate this research and use it against humans, then it surely can explain why these postulated terrorists couldn’t use humans instead of ferrets. How would a moratorium on ones own research become an advantage under these circumstances? Will the postulated terrorists participate in such a moratorium too?

    And will evolution join this moratorium and restrain itself from letting a virus jump species? How is a moratorium help us when that happens?

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  5. gsgs

    > … that the recent virus transmission work was dangerous, perhaps even foolhardy,
    > and that terrorist groups could easily take advantage of the new findings to kill millions.
    > None of that is even remotely true.

    it was clearly dangerous, so there were security measures necessary, and indeed security was the main reason why the research took so long (>10 years) since planning.
    Foolhardy – that’s subjective.
    Terrorist “could” take advantage and that “might” enable them to kill millions.
    That’s also undebated. The question is how easily and how likely would they succeed.
    With or without that withheld information.
    I’d say less than 10%, but even 1% would be scary, and trigger dramatic response
    worth billions, agreed ?
    Is 1% close enough to “remotely” ?

    1. Alan Post author

      I disagree. It’s completely debatable (and debated, if you read this post and my more recent one on bioterrorism) whether terrorists could take advantage of this at all. Indeed, given that nobody has even replicated Fouchier et al.’s results, it’s impossible even to say that the alleged findings of transmissibility and pathogenicity in ferrets are valid. So no, none of the NSABB’s overblown concerns are even remotely true, at least based on the evidence we have so far.

      1. gsgs

        thanks for replying. Yes, it’s debated. But you must admit that there is some chance
        -the magnitude of which is being debated – and given the importance of the issue
        we should consider measures if that chance is only 10% or 1%
        (the estimated probability that terrorists or foe-nations could take advantage of it)
        Fouchier said it took them >10years and it was not easy, mainly because of security
        issues as I understand. The findings should be valid (likely) for that experiment,
        do you think they report incorrectly ? Could it be replicated ? Probably, IMO,
        I’d say 80%. Overblown concerns ? I have the opposite feeling.
        Compare with 2006 ,
        when WHO published their H5N1-pandemic death-estimates.
        when worldbank published their H5N1-pandemic cost estimates.
        when George Bush released $7B for pandemic preparedness and
        when nations published their pandemic plans and started stockpiling Tamiflu.
        Is the danger smaller now ? The virus is still out, although the spread in poultry
        is less dynamic than in 2005-2007. Now it has the 2009-mex-flu that reassorts
        well i.e. in swine. And we know now that it’s closer to
        humanly transmissable than thought.
        Concerns cannot be “true”, they can be reasonable or not.
        “Overblown” is just your opinion, others disagree.
        What did you think in 2006 wrt. “overblown H5N1″ ?

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